A ‘Get Woke’ Guide to Celebrating 150 years of Canada
Canada Day has long been one of my favourite days of the year. I’d dress all in red and white, going so far as to don a ridiculous maple leaf adorned jester’s hat as I wandered the streets of Calgary, watching the RCMP Musical Ride, visiting landmarks and staying out after dark to watch the fireworks that would inevitably light the night sky.
I never really gave much thought to the so-called founding of Canada or what the day might mean to someone who wasn’t white and especially to the Indigenous population. My celebration of it wasn’t a celebration of colonialism, but merely a reflection of my love of a good street party. Besides, I have a certain pride in this country, which is regularly voted as one of the top ten in the world in which to live for happiness and both the Mercer and the InterNations Quality of life reports. I’m also the product of a Canadian school system that dedicates a significant portion of its lessons to disparaging the United States and ‘bigging’ us up as ‘better’. We are a mosaic, not a melting pot, known worldwide for our friendly, apologetic attitudes and, these days, our attractive Prime Minister. Oh, and moose, toques and snow.
I never thought of celebrating Canada Day as something I should or shouldn’t do for any particular reason; it was just something I did because I’ve always done it.
This year marks the sesquicentennial of Canada as a country. That’s the 150th anniversary, which makes Canada seem awfully young — and as far as a being considered a colony, it is. But this ‘country’ has been here just as long as any other land mass on the planet, and the last 150 years is a blip in its history. Besides that, a lot of what Canadians learn in school about that 150 years is narrowly focused on white culture, often glossing over the unseemly bits or leaving them out entirely.
Just a few short years ago, I would have been stoked to celebrate 150 years of Canada being Canada, just as until last year, I celebrated Canada Day without much thought. But this year I’m more aware of the history of the founding of the country and therefore open to questioning just what it is we are celebrating and what such a celebration means to all the people who live here.
While there is much in Canada’s history that we can be proud of it is not, as I was led to believe in school, as unblemished as all that. We may have been the end of the Underground Railroad for Black people escaping slavery from the States, but we are no less guilty of slavery ourselves. Japanese internment camps were not exclusively American, as Canada had their own, on top of internment camps for those of Ukrainian, German and Italian descent. There is also the regular disenfranchisement of immigrant populations like the Chinese or the implementation of the ‘continuous journey’ act of 1908 that severely hindered the ability for South Asians to immigrate to Canada.
But probably most notorious of all are the Residential Schools (Not that we should be ranking human atrocities — racism and xenophobia are not okay, however subtle).
Established in the early 1830’s, these were government-established religious schools used to systematically destroy Indigenous culture and language by forcefully removing Indigenous children from their families and raising them in a white Christian setting. The violations of human rights and dignity caused by these schools are multitude, from unauthorised medical testing to sexual and physical abuse. Perhaps most appalling is that the last of these schools did not close until 1996 and steps to reconciliation, in the face of what is inarguably attempted genocide, have only barely begun.
It was during the two months I was living in Australia that I began to reflect on what it meant for me to know this about the history of the country in which I was born, and yet still choose to celebrate Canada Day.
For those who are unaware, Australia has a similar day of celebration, known as (very originally) ‘Australia Day’…to some. To others, however, it has been given the apt title of ‘Invasion Day’. While much of the country celebrates the day marking when the first British fleet arrived at the continent, there is a significant activist movement that notes this day as the point at which already established peoples were attacked, driven out of their homes, enslaved and killed. For Indigenous Australians, this day represents the beginning of a long, painful history of colonialism and racism, much of which continues to this day. One merely needs to go to Twitter on Invasion Day to see a white-fragility backlash of hatred against those who don’t see much worth celebrating about the day the British showed up and started acting like they owned the place—a terrible habit of theirs.
I fully embraced the Invasion Day advocacy, as it made perfect sense to me that the day was inarguably not one worth celebrating given that it marks the beginning of the end for whole tribes of people. I also thought it was quite callous and arrogant to celebrate the day colonisation began, but I didn’t necessarily draw lines to the ‘formation’ of Canada. At the time, in my mind, because Canada Day is a celebration of the signing of a piece of paper, it didn’t equate to the same thing. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and wondering why I thought it shouldn’t be the same.
No, Canada day doesn’t mark the moment Europeans showed up and started imposing their systems, beliefs and false supremacy on an already existing population. But could I honestly deny that a bunch of white men signing some paperwork to form a country without consulting the pre-existing population was any less a violation of human rights and dignity?
The question stuck in my mind, and I found myself reluctant to celebrate Canada Day that year. It wasn’t even just the fact that it’s only part of white history, but that it’s also incredibly patriarchal. This was an exclusively white male minority making a decision in the interest of a far-flung ruling country. Unless you happen to be one of the white men in the room who agreed to the British North America Act, and you want to pat yourself on the back for a business deal going down, this isn’t a day worth celebrating at all.
Waving a Canadian flag and attending a sesquicentennial street party doesn’t make you or anyone else a ‘bad’ person. My intention is not to make anyone feel guilty for celebrating Canada Day or the 150th anniversary of a bunch of white dudes signing some paper, but to invite people to consider what it is we are celebrating.
I am not averse to celebrating that which matters — as a country Canada has accomplished a lot worthy of celebration. Canadians have given the world insulin, the Canadarm, the pacemaker, wheelchair accessible buses, the first jetliner and the electric wheelchair. Not to mention poutine, Chris Hadfield and the egg carton. It was the first country in the Americas to legalise marriage equality and was where T-Cell receptors were discovered. But still, even these things are more of the same white history to which most of us get exposed in the Canadian school system.
To truly celebrate Canada (and significantly improve the education system) we should also note that Indigenous people gave us three notably iconic Canadian things: the canoe, maple syrup and, my favourite, the toboggan. Not to mention snowshoes, moccasins, lacrosse, chewing gum, and petroleum jelly. We should also credit Indigenous people as the original environmental activists and the forbearers of modern conservation efforts. The painkilling qualities of willow bark, the source of which is used as the active ingredient in Aspirin, is only one bit of ethnobotany given to us bythe many tribes who lived here long before the Brits showed up. And along with guitar playing astronauts, we should celebrate Louis Riel, Rosemarie Kuptana and Chief Dan George.
This is, of course, only looking at the contributions and achievements of Indigenous Canadians. Viola Davis Desmond could be described as a Canadian Rosa Parks, a Black woman who refused to sit in the segregated seating of a theatre in Nova Scotia. Denise Chong, a third generation Chinese Canadian, is an economist and ground-breaking writer. Gurbax Singh Malhi, Herb Dhaliwal and Jag Bhaduria became the first South Asian Members of Parliament in 1993.
The date on which we celebrate 150 years of Canada as a country isn’t a great choice given what it signifies but also for what it ignores. It’s not racist to celebrate on July 1st, but it is racist to only celebrate the colonial history of the country and ignore or exclude the diversity of humanity that lives here. We can get better. While the date isn’t going to change this year, and probably not next year either, that doesn’t mean something else can’t change — our willingness as a nation to acknowledge our entire history, that worth celebrating and that for which we can still make amends.
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Reference links in order of appearance:
World Happiness Report: http://worldhappiness.report/overview/
Mercer Report wiki-page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercer_Quality_of_Living_Survey
Article on InterNations report from UK Business Insider: http://uk.businessinsider.com/internations-countries-with-the-best-quality-of-life-in-the-world-for-expats-2017-1/#21-denmark-the-country-has-the-shortest-working-week-out-of-all-those-surveyed-at-39-hours-however-it-fell-down-the-list-for-quality-of-life-during-to-scoring-low-on-childcare-options-and-availability-1
A history of discrimination & prejudice in Canada: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/prejudice-and-discrimination/
Residential School timeline: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/timelines/residential-schools/
The Greatest Canadian Invention wiki-page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Greatest_Canadian_Invention
First Nations protests: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/iconic-first-nations-protests-1.2125374
Louis Riel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Riel
Rosemarie Kuptana: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemarie_Kuptana
Dan George: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_Dan_George
Embedded page link for Wiki of Canadian Electoral firsts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_electoral_firsts_in_Canada#South_Asians